I'm told that priests don't have to queue for the Baths in Lourdes but something in me resists such privilege and I go down as a civilian, taking my place with all the other men and wait. It's easier for men than women because there are not as many of us.
It's a very hot day but my time standing under the burning sun lasts only half an hour and then I'm into the shaded, seated area. There's a blessedness in waiting in common with others. Waiting and silent. Present.
Some men chatter with each other from time to time and over the distorted loud-speaker people are praying and singing to help us focus. It's an assault rather than a help, so I block it out and pray within myself. Sometimes my eyes are closed, sometimes I simply observe. This reminds me of the pool of Bethesda in John 5 - the paralysed waiting for the moment of healing.
As well as priests and religious the old and infirm get priority over the rest of us and it is truly beautiful to see the tender relationship between a sick man and his helper. Tender and happy.
A few young Dominicans, radiant in white habits, arrive and - without a glimmer of bashfulness - take their place ahead of the rest of us. Perhaps I'm slightly resentful? But mostly I think how good it would be for them to wait among the rest of us, to experience the holiness of it.
Dads with their little sons also get priority. They too are a beautiful sight. A young father holds his paralysed son in his arms. The boy spends his time looking up into the face of his father. Their eyes meet, their faces touch and the child utters incomprehensible sounds as his Dad whispers words that are soft and gentle. Maybe funny words because they both laugh.
Though I carry everyone I love in my heart, it strikes me that I have left everything outside - priesthood, all my fatherhood - that I come here with nothing, with no claim of any sort.
We are every race and age and shape in this place. This is evident everywhere in Lourdes and it is inspiring to see so many ordinary, modern young people as pilgrims and volunteers.
A gay couple up ahead of me look somewhat vulnerable and I admire their courage. They are not in any way arrogant, not strutting their stuff. On first seeing them I wonder what two women are doing in the men's section. Their hair is very feminine but their feature are male & bearded. Everyone in the place looks at them at one time or another. The looks are puzzled, not judgemental.
What should I pray for on entering the bath? Words that come to mind are courage, fortitude, boldness of spirit. A parishioner said to me one day - "it's time for you to come out of the trenches. I know what you're capable of." Sometimes I wonder if I am an apostolic coward.
After two hours waiting my time arrives to go into the building and I'm taken in behind a curtain where three men are sitting on brown plastic chairs wearing only jocks. I strip down to the same vulnerable state. That's what I feel - that we are in a vulnerable state as we wait.
Richard Rohr talks a lot about the need for rites of passage or initiation for Western men; the need to be confronted by our own vulnerability in order to mature. This bath experience offers something like that - for me at least. Though I know I have confronted my vulnerability many times, nakedness is somehow more threatening than any crisis I've endured.
One of the attendants asks me what language I speak. He is a tall, young, heavy Italian who speaks very good English. It is he who takes me respectfully - as though I am a child or an old man - through the final curtain into the bath area, instructing me to face the wall naked while from behind he wraps a large, white, wet towel around my waist. He warns me that "this will feel cold" and it does. I have a brief, sharp intake of breath and shiver a little.
The bath looks like grey marble and has a couple of steps leading down into the water. I stand in cold water up to my ankles - like Ezekiel in the Temple stream - and the Italian tells me to take my time and make my intention. With eyes closed, nothing of what I had prepared comes to mind. The only prayer in me is "Your will be done!" Something is pent up within me - is it love, the unbreathed Holy Spirit?
Making the sign of the Cross I say "I'm ready" while the two bath attendants take me by each arm and lead me down into the water, first sitting and then back until all but my face is submerged for the briefest moment. They surge me back onto my feet. That which was pent up is exhaled and I feel like a dolphin or a whale breaking the surface. Suddenly my face is only inches from the statue of the Blessed Virgin which I kiss. "Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us. St. Bernadette, pray for us."
Then I'm out of the bath, facing the wall again. He undoes the towel, still shielding me with it as I pull on my jocks. The body dries of its own accord. I shake hands with each of them and say "God bless!" Once more back through the curtain, I get fully dressed and walk out into the beautiful warm sunshine.
Needing to celebrate I go off and get myself an ice cream! Walking on air.
Next morning I con-celebrate Mass in the Grotto, a truly beautiful thing to be in that space, and in the silence after Holy Communion the words of Jesus come clearly to me, "there is one thing more you need to do." (Mark 10). The one thing more is that I need to go to confession, to the inner bathing of my soul. "Your will be done!"
In the evening I go to the Reconciliation Chapel which is pleasantly quiet. A few priests are hearing in the English section. The one I choose is from the USA. It's face to face. No screen. No hiding. Confrontation of my vulnerability once more and feeling that I was met, heard, responded to and reconciled.
The fingers of the fallen Christ have found their place in the dust of my humanity and He who rises lifts me up with Him to journey on again. Free a while and filled with hope
Eamonn Monson sac